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Poster parade
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Poster parade

When we think of the history of trains and transport, we tend to think of men. Well, I do. Not that it’s a subject I think about often, but on the rare occasions that I do ponder the origins of Britain’s transport network, my mind is more likely to run to the male officials who saw the potential of laying track, the male engineers who built the first stream trains, or the railwaymen with coal-streaked faces. Or, more recently, to Thomas the Tank Engine – scarcely a female character in sight – and men in hard hats drilling deep into the ground. Even the eponymous tube map was drawn by a male draftsman called Harry Beck.

picnics and rambles

Of course, as with everything, there were women behind the creation and expansion of this country’s transport infrastructure; it’s simply that their stories are not as well known. But they were there, not least in the female artists who advertised the virtues of travelling by train, via witty and appealing poster campaigns, as shown in a display now on at the London Transport Museum.

Not that, besides the title of the display – ‘a Century of Creative Women’ – you’d know these posters were designed by women per se. There’s nothing particularly feminine about the images, which are as lively and nostalgic as you’d expect from a display celebrating vintage advertising. But looking at the first image, a poster of ‘Kew Gardens by tram’ from 1910 painted by one Ella Coates, you can still appreciate how pioneering merely being a female graphic artist back then must have been. The posters on display aren’t just ascetically pleasing watercolours (although some are, including one portraying Kew as a kind of rural Eden), but images drawn for a particular commercial purpose, at a time when women had little involvement in business.

margret calkin james

Mostly, though, this tiny display is a treat for design enthusiasts, and while I’d have liked slightly more discussion of who these different women were and how they forged careers in what was at the time a man’s world, it’s worth a visit.

The posters are marvellous, recalling an era when travelling by tube was the first step in an adventure, a time when living in London’s outer reaches meant living far from urban life and its spoils. I loved an art deco poster from 1932, proclaiming that ‘the underground brings all good things nearer’ against an image of the classical Goddess Persephone. Presumably, the message to Depression-era Britain was that ancient miracles could be realised if one disembarked at platform 2. Rather removed from the sentiment most of us feel when beginning our daily commute.

Several of the posters in the display focus on the Underground’s potential for extracting Londoners from the confines of the city, enthusiastically pointing out that you can get to the country ‘for picnics’ in just 30 minutes (no engineering works to worry about back then, it seems). Another image, produced by Herry Perry in 1930, depicts a Disneyfied pastoral scene, with the tagline ‘country joys from Camden Town station’.

A design from the mid-1930s informs passengers of how to reach the riverside by way of a mesmerising depiction of rowers idling away the day under a romantic, sun-drenched sky. It could be a travel poster for a cruise down India’s waterways; maybe back then advertising regulators were less pernickety about creative licence.

laura knight

The display is all of 20 posters, advertising attractions like the Science Museum and the zoo or simply London for children, but each merit close inspection, both in terms of the language used and the changing artistic styles. And in a time of ticket office closures, when we grumble about delays and pile into carriages sardine-style, it’s a reminder of why the railways were so transformational to London and the rest of the country.

But, even in the early days, those in charge understood the need to see off customer complaints; my favourite poster in the display discusses ‘the problem of the underground’ and depicts a well-attired pipe smoking gentleman considering the taxes, coal, oil and raw materials required to move the 306,000 passengers who travelled by tube in 1923. The modern TFL could do a lot worse than to resurrect that image.

Poster Parade: A Century of Creative Women, London Transport Museum until 23rd April